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Posts tagged ‘Backyard Birding’

How To Attract Northern Cardinals To Your Yard In 4 Easy Steps

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The sights and sounds of Northern Cardinals are a welcome addition to any landscape. Follow these four simple steps to attract more of these beautiful songbirds to your yard.

Northern Cardinals are one of the most recognized birds throughout their range and a favourite backyard visitor of many. Cardinals are often the bird homeowners most wish to attract when placing a feeder in their yard. This winter I regularly have a dozen cardinals visiting my feeders at the same time providing an incredible sight. In order to lure all these cardinals to my yard I have implemented a few simple measures to make my landscape more enticing. Attracting cardinals is quite simple if you follow these four easy steps.

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Cedars provide shelter from the elements and predators making them a perfect tree for attracting cardinals.

Provide Adequate Habitat

Northern Cardinals prefer a habitat consisting of dense thickets that provide cover. If your yard is void of this type of vegetation, adding a certain few trees and shrubs is a good place to start. I know what you’re thinking, “Trees take years to grow, and I won’t see cardinals for decades.” By carefully choosing which species to plant the benefits will be reaped much sooner. Fortunately, cardinals tend to hide low to the ground, which means large mature trees are not required for attracting cardinals.

Two of my favourite native species which provide great cover for cardinals are the Red Osier Dogwood and the Eastern White Cedar. Both of these are readily available at area nurseries, are inexpensive to purchase, and as is the case with all plants native to our area are extremely easy to grow even if you lack a green thumb.

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Female Northern Cardinal perched in the safety of a dense thicket.

Fruit from the Red Osier Dogwood is consumed by over 100 bird species in Ontario making it my favourite native shrub. Since introducing this species to my landscape several years ago, I have seen an increase in the variety of birds visiting my yard and an increase in the number of cardinals. This plant is incredibly hardy and does best in full sun to part shade. An incredibly versatile shrub, it can tolerate dry conditions but will also grow in standing water.

Red Osier Dogwoods are fast growing reaching a maximum height and spread of 12 feet in only a few years. Dogwoods are easily pruned if a smaller shrub is more suited to your yard. Comprised of multiple stems, Red Osier Dogwoods provide excellent shelter to a multitude of songbirds including the cardinal. The deep red branches add a beautiful element of colour to any landscape especially during the winter months when colour is absent from most yards.

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Female Northern Cardinal.

When searching for a cedar tree, make sure you in fact purchase an Eastern White Cedar. Emerald Cedars are often sold in mass quantities at every garden centre, home improvement store, and just about any other retailer selling live plants come spring. The reason to avoid these non native trees is their foliage is too dense denying birds access to the inner branches, thus providing no shelter at all. The Eastern White Cedar’s drooping branches and dark green foliage provide protection from the elements and predators not to mention the perfect location to construct a nest.

Tolerant of some shade, the Eastern White Cedar can reach a height of 50 feet and prefers moist soil. These trees can be purchased at area garden centres as 3 to 4 foot specimens, a sufficient size to attract cardinals. Like the Red Osier Dogwood, Eastern White Cedars can be topped and pruned to control their size and are perfect for hedges.   

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Regardless of the weather, a source of fresh water will attract more cardinals.

Add A Water Source 

Fresh water is an excellent way to attract more birds and is an even bigger draw than food as not every yard has a water source. Water can be offered in a variety of ways from a simple dish to an elaborate water feature. Bird baths are one of the most common ways to provide water as birds can both drink and bathe. For the cold winter months consider a heated birdbath to prevent the water from freezing.

Despite frigid temperatures across our region during winter months, birds still need to bathe as feather maintenance is vital to their survival. A heated bird bath will certainly attract more cardinals to your yard as this can be the unique feature that makes your yard more attractive than your neighbour’s.

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After clearing the seed ports on my feeders, cardinals will readily cleanup spilled seed from the ground.

Offer Their Two Favourite Seeds 

Cardinals will consume a wide variety of seed, but they do have two favourties, sunflower and safflower. Black oil sunflower seed is the most economical seed on the market and is consumed by all songbirds that frequent our area. If I could only have one type of seed to offer in my feeders, black oil sunflower would be my choice. If cleaning up shells from beneath your feeder is something you wish to avoid, hulled sunflower seed is the perfect choice. Hulled sunflower is simply black oil sunflower seed out of the shell. This is more of a premium seed and costs a bit more money due to processing costs, but will keep your lawn or patio much cleaner. Keep in mind that when buying a bag of hulled sunflower seed you are only paying for seed and not the shells. A good portion of a 10 pound bag of black oil sunflower seeds is actually shell weight, so once this is factored in paying extra for hulled sunflower is easier to swallow, for you and the birds. 

Safflower seed is another great option for attracting cardinals. This white seed is a favourite of cardinals, but is also consumed by Mourning Doves, House Finches, and Black-capped Chickadees. Another benefit of safflower seed is that it is less desirable to squirrels and blackbirds. If squirrels, Common Grackles, and European Starlings are a problem in your yard, try switching to safflower seed.

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Northern Cardinals prefer to feed on the ground. During the winter months be sure to keep the snow beneath your feeders packed down to provide these birds an added place to feed.

Choose The Right Feeder   

Northern Cardinals are ground feeding birds by nature, so this is important to keep in mind when choosing a feeder. One of the best choices is a ground tray, which is simply an open tray with legs that you place on the ground. The bottoms of these feeders are made of perforated galvanized metal to allow drainage of the exposed seed.

Unfortunately, these feeders are not very popular as they can quickly become a squirrel feeder if the right seed is not chosen. Safflower seed is the best choice for a ground feeder when trying to attract the Northern Cardinal while deterring squirrels. Expect an abundance of Mourning Doves to be attracted to this setup as well. 

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Tray style feeders are perfect for attracting Northern Cardinals.

Another great feeder for attracting cardinals is a hanging or pole mounted tray feeder. This style of feeder is virtually identical to the ground tray except that it can be pole mounted or hung. If placed where squirrels can’t access it, try a mix of sunflower and safflower for best results. 

The only downside to tray feeders is that the seed is exposed to the rain and snow. If using one of these feeders, putting out small amounts of seed will help keep it fresh. For many, these feeders are inconvenient, but in my opinion are two of the best for attracting cardinals. 

Something else to keep in mind when choosing a feeder is that cardinals like to face forward when they feed. This is another reason why tray feeders work so well. If however a tray feeder is not what you are after than other great options exist. 

A hopper feeder that can be hung or pole mounted will definitely entice cardinals to feed. These feeders typically have a ledge where cardinals can sit and feed or a large tray incorporated on the bottom, which makes them a great choice for cardinals. 

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This tube feeder complete with a large perch ring and filled with black oil sunflower seeds is a favourite of the cardinals that visit my backyard.

Tube feeders are also great for attracting Northern Cardinals. Remember that cardinals like to face forward to feed so make sure the tube feeder you choose has large enough perches to accommodate this. Two excellent choices are Brome’s Squirrel Buster Plus or Squirrel Buster Classic. Both of these feeders are squirrel proof with the seed ports closing off under the weight of a squirrel. The Squirrel Buster Plus also comes with a lifetime guarantee so though it may seem pricey, it might just be the last feeder you buy.   

Any of these feeders can be purchased from your local retailer specializing in wild birds. Choose the style that is best suited for your yard and fill with either sunflower, safflower of a mix of both. Remember to keep your feeder clean and the seed ports free of snow and ice during the winter months. 

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Attracting cardinals to your yard is simple by following the above mentioned four easy steps.

At dawn, cardinals are often the first bird to arrive at a backyard feeder and also the last to leave at dusk. Sometimes they can only be identified by their silhouettes and soft calls during these low light conditions. Attracting cardinals to your yard is quite easy if you follow these four steps. If you are lacking cardinals in your yard, recognize which of these elements you are missing and make a point of implementing it. By providing these necessitates, I’m sure you will see and increase in the number of Northern Cardinals frequenting your yard.

Good birding,

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Red-headed Woodpecker: An Unexpected Backyard Visitor

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This Red-headed Woodpecker was an unexpected visitor this past week to my backyard.

Wednesday started in a similar fashion to most of my days, with a trip outside to fill my feeders. I like to ensure my feeders are full to start the day, so I am ready to enjoy the birds when they arrive at dawn and throughout the day as I work from home. After filling the feeders, I returned inside and sat down at my desk ready to begin my workday. As I glanced over my computer screen out the window, I noticed a flash of red at the feeder where I had just placed a handful of peanuts in the shell. Naturally, I assumed it was one of the Red-bellied Woodpeckers that regularly visit, but upon closer look I realized the bird was not a Red-bellied Woodpecker, but a much less common Red-headed Woodpecker. 

Having only seen a Red-headed Woodpecker a few times in my lifetime, words cannot describe how excited I was to see this bird at my feeder. Red-headed Woodpeckers are currently listed as a species at risk in Ontario and therefore rare in most areas. The majority of reported sightings in Southwestern Ontario come from within two of our provincial parks, Rondeau and Pinery, as well as Point Pelee National Park.

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I was rather shocked Wednesday morning to look out my window and see a Red-headed Woodpecker on my feeder.

Typically when a new species or first of year migrant arrives in my yard, I am quite content to watch from indoors and let the bird feed undisturbed while getting accustomed to my yard before I venture outside in an attempt to capture an image. I would much rather enjoy viewing the bird from inside and not have a photograph than risk spooking the bird and have it leave my yard just for the sake of an image. On this day there was construction going on in the yard behind me with dump trucks, a backhoe, and several men working. I watched as the Red-headed Woodpecker made several trips to and from my feeder unfazed by the loud noises coming from the adjacent yard. Given the nearby commotion, I decided that my presence in the yard was unlikely to startle the bird if I kept my distance and avoided sudden movements. As I slipped quietly out the back door with my camera in hand I could hear the bird calling form a tree in the corner of my yard.

I positioned myself partially hidden on the corner of my deck at a 90 degree angle to the sun. This was not my first choice in terms of light or background for a picture, but again first and foremost, I did not want to frighten the bird. Only a few minutes passed when the Red-headed Woodpecker swooped down from the tree and landed on my feeder. I quickly pressed the shutter button capturing several images before the bird grabbed a peanut and flew off over the yard behind me. My excitement level was so high that I was actually shaking and uncertain how sharp my images would be knowing that there was a high probability of camera shake. I realized the presence of a Red-headed Woodpecker in my yard would be a major distraction from my work not to mention I may never get another opportunity like this again, so I decided to spend the day in my yard observing and photographing this rare visitor. Fortunately, my schedule allows me to set my own hours and the lost time can be made up by working evenings and on the weekend, a small sacrifice I was more than willing to make in order to enjoy this beautiful bird.

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This large tree behind my house proved to be a favourite perch of this Red-headed Woodpecker. Each time the bird returned to my yard it would pause briefly on this tree before continuing on to the feeder.

As time passed, it became even more evident that this bird was not perturbed by me or the loud noises coming from my neighbour’s yard. Even the loud banging of a dump truck tailgate did not prevent this Red-headed Woodpecker from making frequent trips to my feeder. Realizing that the bird was likely to return multiple times, I decided to switch positions in order to achieve better lighting and backdrops for my images. Still, I kept my distance from the feeder and stayed hidden behind various trees and shrubs in my yard.

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Great views of this Red-headed Woodpecker were had as it perched high above my feeder in a large sycamore tree.

I first observed the Red-headed Woodpecker on my feeder around 7:30 a.m. and watched as it made regular visits throughout the day. Sometimes an hour would pass without seeing the bird, but its pattern of approaching from the south continued for several hours. When I finally went inside for dinner after 5 p.m. the bird was still making frequent trips to my feeder. I had to step out at 6:30 p.m. to run an errand, but when I looked out the back door before leaving, there it was grabbing a peanut and heading off to the south. 

When I awoke Thursday morning, I headed back out to fill the feeders and hoped that the bird may still be around. After returning inside, again at about 7:30 a.m., I heard the Red-headed Woodpecker call and glanced out the window. High up in the sycamore tree I could see the morning sun glistening off its black back and red head. My schedule the remainder of the week did not allow me to devote as much time watching the bird, so I am unsure if it is still present. Having this bird stick around would be incredible, but despite plenty of food and adequate habitat, I imagine with such low numbers of these birds in our area it will move on to explore new areas in search of a potential mate. I will be sure to provide updates if the bird remains in the area. 

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Peanuts, both in the shell and halves kept this Red-headed Woodpecker returning to my feeder throughout the day.

Despite being a species at risk in Ontario, a number of Red-headed Woodpecker sightings have been reported in 2017 to the various bird observation websites including eBird. As many as 6 Red-headed Woodpeckers were observed during this spring’s Festival of Birds at Point Pelee National Park. Other sightings from Elgin and Middlesex counties have also been submitted. Friends of mine who live in Orillia, Ontario informed me that they had a Red-headed Woodpecker visit their feeder in early May. Closer to home, a juvenile Red-headed Woodpecker was reported last December along the Thames River near Civic Gardens Complex. This particular bird remained in that area throughout the winter. and I was fortunate enough to view it back in January. Unfortunately, I have not seen any recent reports indicating that it is still in the area. Perhaps this is the same bird now displaying adult plumage. Whether or not these increased sightings are a sign of hope for this fragile species only time will tell.

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Having this Red-headed Woodpecker spend the day in my backyard visiting my feeder is a memory I will always remember and certainly a highlight in my life as a birder.

As is the case with all species at risk, habitat loss is one of the biggest factors leading to their reduced numbers. Red-headed Woodpeckers nest in dead trees, so the removal of these potential nest sites due to development, agriculture or safety reasons likely has contributed to their 60% decline in Ontario over the past 20 years. If you have dead trees on your property and it is safe to do so, leave them. Dead trees and branches not only provide potential nesting locations for many cavity nesting birds including the Red-headed Woodpecker, many birds prefer dead branches over live ones for perching. Decaying wood also houses plenty of insects which will in turn attract more birds. Dead and decaying trees may not be as aesthetically pleasing as live ones, but they are a key element to the survival of so many birds. By leaving some dead trees on your property you will certainly attract more birds, and who knows you may just save a species at risk in the process.

Good birding,


Provide A Home For Cavity Nesters

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The Pileated Woodpecker is one of many birds that excavates its own tree cavity for nesting.

Cavity nesting birds come in all shapes and sizes. Small songbirds, medium sized ducks, and even large birds of prey make up the 85 North American species that nest in tree cavities. These birds excavate their own holes, use holes excavated by other species, or use naturally occurring cavities that have resulted from decaying trees. You may have seen woodpeckers in early spring excavating their own cavities, while wood ducks, flycatchers, and owls use existing cavities.

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Great Crested Flycatchers prefer to nest in natural cavities, but will use an old woodpecker hole or nest box.

Several cavity nesting birds have seen their numbers decrease in recent years, with habitat loss being a contributing factor. As trees are cleared to make way for development, so too are potential nest sites for these and other bird species. In many of our ESAs, city parks, and neighbourhoods, dead trees and limbs are removed due to safety concerns further reducing potential nest sites.

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Black-capped Chickadees are another species that excavate their own cavity. I photographed this bird as it excited a decaying willow branch with a beak full of wood.

Some of the more common backyard cavity nesting birds found in our area are: woodpeckers, wrens, chickadees, and nuthatches. Depending on the habitat of your yard you may also find: swallows, bluebirds, ducks, and even owls nesting in cavities on your property. If your yard lacks dead, decaying limbs or you have removed them for safety reasons, many of these cavity nesters will readily accept a properly placed nest box of the appropriate size.

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The Eastern Screech Owl nests in natural cavities or one previously excavated by a woodpecker. These small birds of prey will also use a nest box of the correct size.

I like to make my own nest boxes with materials purchased from my local building supply store. Boxes are easy to make and the supplies needed are inexpensive to purchase. I have had great luck attracting cavity nesters to my yard following the free plans provided at 50 I find it incredibly rewarding to watch birds nest in a box that I made with my own hands. If you do not have access to tools, or just prefer the convenience of a ready made box that only requires hanging, nest boxes can be purchased from the same local independent retailer where you purchase your seed.

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Red-bellied Woodpecker peeking out of a tree cavity.

Now that the spring weather has finally arrived, cavity nesters are busy searching for potential nest locations. Survey your yard for any dead trees or limbs, assess any potential danger, and if safe to do so contemplate leaving them. If they have to be removed, or you have previously removed them, consider adding nest boxes to provide potential nest sites for any displaced cavity nesters.

Good birding,